Why Did They Make Me Read This in High School? (Feat. Lindsay Ellis) | It’s Lit!

So let’s say you’re a student taking your
first western literature class, and all is going well and fine until the professor starts
asking you questions about the great dread dinosaurs of literature that maybe you haven’t
gotten around to reading. And you don’t want to admit you haven’t
read these guys. Maybe you know that Captain Ahab from hell’s heart stabs at thee….
and there’s a whale. You know that Les Mis has a popular musical
adaptation where people wave flags. There’s a revolution, but, like, not the guillotine
one. Right? And you that War and Peace…. Well, it’s
long. Hooboy, it’s long. Why is a bear being tied to a policeman…?
And maybe you ask yourself: Why have I not read these books? Has anyone actually read
these books? They are widely agreed to be big, important books, after all. And this begs the question: What makes a book
important? And who even decided what’s “important” in the first place? Literary critics, writers, philosophers, bloggers
— all have tried to tackle where and why and how an author may strike such lightning
in a bottle that their works enter the pantheon of “Classical Literature”. Why this book
is required reading in high school, where other books are lost to history. To try and
sum up this historical process in a humble 6 minute internet video is nigh on impossible. But hey we’re going to try. There are lots of books that are trashed,
unappreciated or simply not read early on in their publication and only come into popularity
years later. Moby Dick is a famous example of this. Author
Herman Melville died in obscurity believing his opus forgotten. But In 1916, a popular
contemporary novelist, Carl Van Doren, sang its praises publically, the novel caught on
with a more appreciative New York literary scene, and a hundred years later we’re still
meme-ing about Moby Dick. Several decades later, another New York literary
trendsetter, Arthur Mizener, championed a little known novel about Awful Rich People
as “a classic of twentieth century American fiction.” Eventually enough English professors
agreed, and now all high school students have to read The Great Gatsby, Great American Novel™. But not all Very Important Books go unappreciated
in their day. Victor Hugo was already a huge celebrity when
he wrote les Miserables, which not only was a sensation upon release, it has never been
out of print. So too with War and Peace, which enjoyed massive
success upon publication and made Tolstoy, according to his contemporary Goncharov, the
“true lion of Russian literature.” What do these books have in common? Note that all of the above examples are heavily
tied to themes of national and cultural identity – be it American, French or Russian. They have also been deemed important by established
writers, critics and scholars–the intellectual elite. Which brings us to the literary canon: In
the eighteenth century, people began to use the term canon to refer informally to famous
writers as a group. But In contrast to the biblical canon and the canon of saints, the
literary canon was never an official list of officially recognized writers. And lest you think these were meant to be
read by the masses, well.. Nah. That’s the thing about canons – who is excluded is
at least as important as who is included. So who decided what is important in the western
literary canon? Well, historically, it’s been old white men, usually authors or academics
at learning institutions that during the 19th century only admitted young white men, and
taught books by … drag queens! Just kidding they were mostly books by white men.
According to University of Michigan professor of English Jan Stryz, “Some scholars assert
that writing has traditionally been seen as “something defined by the dominant culture
as a white male activity.” So in recent decades, there has been more
skepticism around how the western literary canon was constructed. That is not to say
that big, portentous books like War and Peace or Moby Dick are not important or influential,
but that someone had to decide they were important and influential, and everyone else had to
go, “yeah, that sounds legit.” With that said, defenders of the traditional
western canon, like Harold Bloom in his best-selling book “The Western Canon,” arguing that
canon formation takes place as great writers respond in their writing to the work of their
predecessors, and dismissing criticism of the canon as “the School of Resentment” Yikes. Fortunately, more diverse writers are slowly
being added to this canon–writers like Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright. It goes without saying that the world has
changed immeasurably over the last 50 years, let alone the last three centuries since the
old boy’s club sat down and told us what was worthwhile. Our day-to-day lives, our
technology, our understanding of people outside of our own limited worldviews has changed,
and with that, so to have the types of voices that now get published. This is the Great American Read. And while
it’s not to say that Moby Dick or Les Miserables or War and Peace don’t contain universal
truths or are not worth the time to visit. It is also to say that we are a diverse country
filled with much more diverse literature than you were encouraged to read in high school. So I posit that what is “important” is
less what history tells you it is, but what inspires you want to keep reading in the first
place. So go on, and READ. Lose yourself in something
that speaks to you–whether it’s towards your innate curiosity about a subject, to
your sense of fun that just wants something to go with a beach chair and a red cup of
sangria, or just because, hey, it’s got robots. And robots are okay. PBS Digital Studios is conducting its annual
audience survey. This survey is one of the most important projects we do every year because
it helps us understand who you are and what you like and don’t like. Want more episodes
of It’s Lit? Take the survey and let us know! Twenty five random participants will
receive an awesome PBSDS t-shirt.

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